Microsoft enables China to spy on Skype users via keyword triggers

By on March 8, 2013, 3:00 PM

University of New Mexico student Jeffrey Knockel claims to have revealed an encrypted list of 1,100+ keywords within China's Skype client, TOM-Skype. This list, containing words like "BBC" and phrases like "Democratic Unionist Party", are suspected to be used for monitoring TOM-Skype users.

When a TOM-Skype user sends chat messages containing "suspicious" language found within the program's periodically updated keyword list, Knockel's research indicates an alert is sent to TOM-Skype's servers containing the sender's account name, message timestamp and detected word(s). 

The list was uncovered after Knockel had been monitoring suspicious communications between TOM-Skype and its Chinese servers. The collection of words was encrypted, but Knockel was able to employ some clever analytical techniques and reverse-engineering, which eventually lead to its uncovering.

The two-year long research project found only evidence of text-based chat monitoring. A similar mechanism used for voice communications was not found, although that doesn't preclude other vectors of surveillance.

According to Reporters Without Borders, numerous journalists and activists have had their Skype communications intercepted. As a result, privacy and anti-censorship advocates have chided Microsoft for not being more transparent about TOM-Skype and its dealings with China.

If you're going to do business in China, you have to play by their rules. In this case, Microsoft has ostensibly made concessions to appease Chinese authorities, granting the company access to the most populous market on Earth.

"As a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses." TOM-Skype said in 2008.

The practice though, although possibly a demand of Chinese policy, is likely to make Western idealists cringe. However, it should be noted that Western democracies aren't necessarily above these kinds of techniques themselves. 

Knockel has published the growing list of questionable keywords online. The words are in Chinese, but running them through a translator reveals a plethora of seemingly politically-focused language.




User Comments: 11

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2 people like this | Tygerstrike said:

WOW! Really Microsoft?? You have been shady and we knew that. But activly helping a communist regiem activly spy on its own ppl? Thats low even for Mr. Gates. I know you want the chinese yen but to enable a govt to side step a persons privacy just because you want more money sickens me. How far up does this go? How many countries have you made deals with to shatter ppls privacy? I had wanted to buy myself a nice gaming laptop with Win8 on it. Now, screw that!!! How do we know that Microsoft isnt doing something similar with the US market. I think its time we as a consuming public show MicroShaft how we feel about this.

lawfer, TechSpot Paladin, said:

WOW! Really Microsoft?? You have been shady and we knew that. But activly helping a communist regiem activly spy on its own ppl? Thats low even for Mr. Gates.

I stopped reading right about there.

Also, why would Microsoft essentially break Chinese laws just so that it'll help those at home feel better? Whether those laws should be in place in the first place is another discussion, but I don't see how MS or any other western-originated company expanded in Asia is necessarily at fault for following communist rules.

Ranger1st Ranger1st said:

.. because it's perfectly acceptable in your book for an American company to support, promote and encourage censorship, probably detention and possible execution of people, through the use of it's 'accommodation' to communist laws. Yeah, your a fukin' hero..

,

WOW! Really Microsoft?? You have been shady and we knew that. But activly helping a communist regiem activly spy on its own ppl? Thats low even for Mr. Gates.

I stopped reading right about there.

Also, why would Microsoft essentially break Chinese laws just so that it'll help those at home feel better? Whether those laws should be in place in the first place is another discussion, but I don't see how MS or any other western-originated company expanded in Asia is necessarily at fault for following communist rules.

1 person liked this | spectrenad said:

.. because it's perfectly acceptable in your book for an American company to support, promote and encourage censorship, probably detention and possible execution of people, through the use of it's 'accommodation' to communist laws. Yeah, your a fukin' hero..

,

WOW! Really Microsoft?? You have been shady and we knew that. But activly helping a communist regiem activly spy on its own ppl? Thats low even for Mr. Gates.

I stopped reading right about there.

Also, why would Microsoft essentially break Chinese laws just so that it'll help those at home feel better? Whether those laws should be in place in the first place is another discussion, but I don't see how MS or any other western-originated company expanded in Asia is necessarily at fault for following communist rules.

If you make a trip to China, you'll have to follow their rules, even if you don't agree. It's the same here. If they want to be in that market (a HUGE market it is), you unfortunately have to play by their rules.

tw0rld tw0rld said:

Microsoft must be getting crazy.

Tygerstrike said:

Microsoft is a business. As such, things like censorship and spying should not be a prerequisist for doing business. It means MS took its original product and modified it in such a way as to allow a third party to access it and spy on its own ppl. I dont know about you, but I feel that is wrong. Basically MS is helping the communist govt to keep its own ppl down. I understand when you visit and different country you have to follow their rules ect. But this isnt about any one individual visiting somewhere else. Its about the fact that an American company who has a stranglehold on OS in the US is really just a commie supporter. They wanted the money SOOOOOO bad that they allow a govt to spy on its own ppl. Maybe the posters here have no idea that privacy is a basic human right. (I point to the the bathroom simply to show a connection). But I believe the people of China deserve better then half the posters above think they do. Top it off that its MS doing it and it stinks to high heaven.

1 person liked this | lawfer, TechSpot Paladin, said:

.. because it's perfectly acceptable in your book for an American company to support, promote and encourage censorship, probably detention and possible execution of people, through the use of it's 'accommodation' to communist laws. Yeah, your a fukin' hero..

,

WOW! Really Microsoft?? You have been shady and we knew that. But activly helping a communist regiem activly spy on its own ppl? Thats low even for Mr. Gates.

I stopped reading right about there.

Also, why would Microsoft essentially break Chinese laws just so that it'll help those at home feel better? Whether those laws should be in place in the first place is another discussion, but I don't see how MS or any other western-originated company expanded in Asia is necessarily at fault for following communist rules.

I explicitly said that whether those laws should be there in the first place or not is another discussion. Meaning I'm not agreeing with what China is telling Microsoft (or every other internet service there) to do. But the point is, I don't have to agree. Neither do you.

Agreeing or not agreeing with it is irrelevant. The point is such laws are in place because the societal and political framework they were built upon allow it. The people living in that country know this and accept it, because it is a different culture. Or what, did you think people found out (just like you just found out) that their communist rule spies on them when they use Skype or any other internet service? Phew! Thank God for the University of New Mexico. If it hadn't been for Jeffrey the Chinese would have no idea their communist country spies on them.

Do YOU want to be the hero? Good luck fixing that Stockholm syndrome.

Microsoft is a business. As such, things like censorship and spying should not be a prerequisist for doing business. It means MS took its original product and modified it in such a way as to allow a third party to access it and spy on its own ppl. I dont know about you, but I feel that is wrong. Basically MS is helping the communist govt to keep its own ppl down. I understand when you visit and different country you have to follow their rules ect. But this isnt about any one individual visiting somewhere else. Its about the fact that an American company who has a stranglehold on OS in the US is really just a commie supporter. They wanted the money SOOOOOO bad that they allow a govt to spy on its own ppl. Maybe the posters here have no idea that privacy is a basic human right. (I point to the the bathroom simply to show a connection). But I believe the people of China deserve better then half the posters above think they do. Top it off that its MS doing it and it stinks to high heaven.

I said "western-originated company expanded in Asia." Key word: expanded. Not "moved."

Microsoft has a Chinese president and Chinese employees that represent the company there. Or what, did you really think it was some republican white guy from Silicon Valley?

Or here are your options: have thousands of people lose their job (and good luck finding a decent job in a 1+ billion market) and have your "conscience" clean by pulling Microsoft from China, knowing the same will still happen, you know, seeing how it is law... OR move on.

Guest said:

They probably have a similar list for the fbi et al.

Archean Archean, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Difference, same is done in western world without much cry because ........... its done with the pretext of 'national security' (e.g. WOT), so I don't see much in to this news.

Guest said:

I still believe in the secret correspondence but it seems to fade away with Skype. I switch to Brosix which claims to be much more secure than Skype and there is no display ads.

Tygerstrike said:

@ Lawfer

Where I can respect your point of view, I cannot respect your acceptance. If everyone acted as you feel, there would be no freedom for afican americans of giving women of america the right to vote. Or any number of issues. What you are proposing is that we just stick our heads in the sand and bend over. Im not that kind of person. I refuse to let a injustice go simply because "nothing can be done". We are a human creature and when we see another human in distress we assist them. This is no different. I am only one individual, but there is tons I can do to make my voice heard. I CAN avoid purchasing MS products, I CAN get my freinds and family on board with this idea. I CAN send a letter to MS directly. I CAN ask my local media outlet to examine this story for broadcast. There is a lot I CAN do. Point is, if I choose to, I can make a difference the same as you can. But not if I do as you hint at and stick my head in the sand. Apathy may be your weakness but it is not mine.

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